Choosing the right car to safely and comfortably transport you, your family, and your camping setup to and from the campsite without the assistance of any kind of trailer can be a challenge.
The good news is, there is a variety of car styles for your family camping adventures, especially in the mid-size car range for those of you who don't want a big car.
Buying or Hiring a car?
Firstly, especially if you are in the market here in Australia for a mid-size car for camping, check out our comprehensive best mid-size cars for camping trailer free review inside our member-only portal, The Campus.
You will also find in The Campus all you need to know if you are hiring or renting a car for camping.
When looking for a car for trailer-free car camping, check out the following styles. There should be something to suit everyone.
Best Car Styles for Camping
Station wagons typically have a larger boot capacity for transporting large and bulky items, making them a great car for camping trailer free.
The main limitation of wagons for our purpose is that they have payload limits at the lower end of the scale compared to SUVs and other larger cars. They therefore might not meet your needs if the weight of your load is at the heavier end of the scale, such as if you want to take bikes, do camp oven cooking, bring along heavy compressor fridges and batteries and / or if your car occupants are of above-average weight. You would be surprised at the load capacity of a wagon but they do have their limits.
Rather annoyingly, a number of popular wagon manufacturers don't quote the payload limit of their vehicles in their printed material, and are also often unable to supply this information upon request. If you have no luck in locating the payload figure, in our experience the average medium-sized and priced wagon has a payload limit of around 430 – 460 kg whereas SUVs will generally start at 470 - 500 kg. If the payload limit of a particular car is not provided in writing, either make a conservative payload assumption or keep looking!
The popularity of wagons has declined over the years with the growth of the SUV market and, as a result, our options are limited. Wagons also appear to be predominantly produced by the more expensive European car manufacturers, but there are a few reasonably priced models on the market.
As wagons don't generally have the additional specialised equipment and functionality of 4WD vehicles, they tend to be lighter in weight, more straightforward to maintain, and more economical in terms of maintenance and fuel costs.
Adding to their fuel efficiency, wagons usually have a lower height, allowing easier loading into the rear and onto the roof racks compared to 4WDs and SUVs. Consequently, they generally have a lower ground clearance, especially when fully loaded.
This more aerodynamic shape also provides more stability on the road than the higher-set SUV, which is particularly relevant in our case if you will be transporting some of your camping gear on the roof racks, as we suggest on this website.
As wagons are typically lighter in weight than SUVs and 4WDs, they also tend to be more agile and handle better on the road, but they may not fare as well in a collision.
As mentioned, the main problem with wagons for our purpose is that they generally do not have a high payload, which we need to safely transport our car passengers and camping gear. The larger cargo space is presumably intended for large and bulky, but not heavy, items.
A typical wagon would be an excellent choice if your payload requirement is at the lower end of the scale, such as if you had younger children. If not, your options will generally be limited to the following vehicles.
SUVs and Four-Wheel Drives
SUV and four-wheel drive vehicles provide much more flexibility and variety for those of you who enjoy exploring the great outdoors and getting off-road, but they tend to cost more to maintain and run because of their added weight and functionality. The cargo capacity of these types of vehicles can vary significantly, as can their weight-carrying capacity.
Some of the medium-size (in terms of fuel efficiency) and most of the larger SUVs and four-wheel drives on the market provide options for seven seats (i.e. a third row of seats). While we don't necessarily need the third row of seats, these cars by definition will have a larger rear cargo area to accommodate the extra passengers. In the absence of the specific dimensions of the cargo space, whether or not the car provides a third row of seats is an excellent starting point.
Some of the vehicle models offering 7 seats will have a five-seat option allowing for more room in the rear for camping gear where the folded third row of seats would have been. Some will also allow for the removal of the third row of seats altogether, freeing up more space. We were advised, however, by one car dealer that the regular removal and replacement of the third row of seats for that particular vehicle was not advisable, but once removed, they could easily be refitted back into the vehicle for resale.
In a couple of cars that we inspected, the payload capacity for the five-seater option was significantly lower than that of the seven-seat option, which is why it is important to check the specifications of the particular model you are considering. AND, don't just take the dealer's word for it – try to find it in print. We can cite many instances where the dealer had the facts wrong according to the printed material.
SUVs and four-wheel drive vehicles have a higher position on the road, providing greater ground clearance for off-road driving and better vision for the driver and passengers. This higher height will, however, make loading gear onto the roof racks more difficult, especially for those of us who are of average height. They tend to fare better in a collision because of their added weight, bulk, and height, but this means they do not tend to handle as well as the lower set and lighter vehicles.
While cars with a seven-seat option are generally in the larger-car market, some do fit into the medium-size category in terms of running and fuel costs. Based on our observations, except for a couple of SUV-branded cars that are more like a SUV / wagon hybrids, an SUV without a seven-seat option will generally not have the depth of boot space we are looking for. We arrived at this conclusion after many failed SUV inspections, with the aim of including as many mid-size cars on our list as possible.
Dual cab ute (pickup truck) with a canopy
A dual cab ute with a canopy always gives me boot envy when I see one (yes, seriously... I know I need to get a life!) That would be our camping car if we had a tradie in our midst, especially on long touring trips.
As workhorses, they are typically very robust, and have a huge load carrying capacity and big cargo space compared to standard wagons and SUVs - what more would we want? The cargo space is so generous you might even get away without using the roof racks at all for transporting your gear. Many also have good off-road capabilities.
Another major benefit of this type of car is that the car cabin is completely separate from the rear cargo area, significantly reducing the risk of passengers being injured by flying camping gear in the event of an accident or a sudden stop.
Owning a ute as a family car has other pros and cons. At least here in Australia, they are deemed to be commercial vehicles for many of the road tolls, stamp duties, and other charges and taxes.
'People movers' can comfortably transport eight adults and, while typically not cars that the average four to five-person family would own, they provide the two main elements we look for in a car – good cargo space with the third row of seats folded down, and a high payload intended for transporting a lot of people. These features are perfect for carrying our camping gear as well as us, but these types of cars are generally not suited to off-road driving.
This type of vehicle may also provide sufficient cargo space to negate the need to transport gear on the roof, and would be a good hire car choice for those of you who don’t own the right car, or even one at all.